Tag Archives: MustSee

Water

[4 stars]

This much recognized tale by director and co-writer Deepa Mehta is more than just an historical. In fact, despite its setting in 1938 India, it is disturbingly reflective of today with its abuse by the class system, treatment of women, religious fundamentalism, and general social unrest. And I don’t mean reflective of India, I mean worldwide. But commentary aside, the story alone is compelling.

In her first and only film to date, Sarala Kariyawasam, holds this film together with her young and intense presence. As a young widow (at 7 years of age) she is forced to live out the rest of her life cloistered. The collection of women she now lives with are faced with her indomitable spirit and the chaos she brings to their ordered world.

In parallel, John Abraham (Dhoom) and Lisa Ray (Endgame) provide a separate and adult focus of life and possibility. It is a tale we’ve seen before, in many ways, but one that doesn’t tend to get old if you like romance and believe love is more important than rules. That doesn’t mean this is an easy set of choices and the outcome is far from sure, but these actors bring you along the journey and help you believe the choices.

Overall, of course, there is the title: Water. The element here represents life, magic, love, and so much more and so much less. I am curious now about its companion pieces that I didn’t know about: Fire and Earth. Water completes the trilogy, which I can see given the ending, but I have no sense of the overall journey and shape from only this single movie.

This is a beautiful and emotionally frustrating film with a lot to say about the past and about the present. Definitely worth your time if you missed it till now.

Water

Every Little Step

[4.5 stars]

A Chorus Line was not only a love letter to Broadway and performers everywhere, it became, quite literally, an anthem to everyone who had dreams and was reaching for success. A few notes from anywhere in its score, one of the most evocative ever penned, transports you into its world instantly. Because it was practically a seamless tale, once you are drawn in, it is almost impossible to pull yourself back out. Its raw emotion remains powerful to this day.

If you don’t know the show, that may appear to be hyperbole, but A Chorus Line remade not only what a Broadway show was, but how they were created and brought to stage. It marshaled the talents of some of the brightest minds and shattered records for years. This documentary captures a lot of that as well as remounting the show 16 years after its original 6137 performance run.

While some of the lyric references have become dated, there is nothing dated about the emotional core of the story itself. It is just as relevant now as it ever was, which is part of what this documentary exposes. Through its dual tracking between show auditions and the real life participants the timeless experience of casting for a show and of performers (or anyone) reaching for their dreams and making them tangible.

Every Little Step

This Film is Not Yet Rated

Even I’m appalled that it has taken me 11  years to finally see this documentary about an industry that I’ve been part of most of my life. Especially so as I’ve always felt the ratings system was bogus (at best). Despite its early, stated intentions to end the censorship era, the advent of the MPAA and the rating system simply shifted and made shadier the efforts to control content by a minority band of self-appointed moralists. If that statement left you in the dust, then you definitely need to see this movie.

The sad truth, however, is that even after 11 years nothing has really changed since this Kirby Dick (The Hunting Ground) documentary hit screens. The MPAA hasn’t changed tactics or efforts at all. They are still beholden to the same masters (studios) and are secretive and capricious (and even bigoted) in their decisions. (See 3 Generations for a recent example. )

On the up side, the lay of the land around the industry, in particular with the rise of Netflix and Amazon Prime, has provided distribution avenues that didn’t exist at the time this docu was made. Also, the rise of “Director’s” and Unrated editions of films, only just coming to prominence when this docu was made, allows for the intended vision of films to find their audience. All of this doesn’t nullify the very real concerns or issues raised, but it points to potential ways around the gatekeepers from an artistic point of view. It would be a great follow-up to see how the financial landscape and decisions may be changing (though even Netflix is starting to scale back after years of risk).

Not Yet Rated exhibits Dick’s devotion to the truth as well as his sense of humor and commitment to his subject. It is a set of qualities that has garnered him several awards and nominations. This particular documentary struggles with its narrative, but not its entertainment nor its ability to inform. Which is to say that while it all comes together and there is a lot of information and revelation, the focus is a little soft. However, if you’ve ever wondered where the heck those letters come from on your entertainment, how they are selected, and how we compare to the rest of the world, you need to see this film.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated

The Salt of the Earth

I’m not entirely sure where to begin with this powerful piece. Perhaps the right way is with the director, which is counter-intuitive, but the result of this movie is directly related to Wim Wenders’ (Pina) involvement.

Making a film about a photographer is fraught with issues. A medium of moving pictures trying to elicit an understanding of a medium that relies on single, frozen moments is practically at odds from the start. Wenders, who narrates a large part of the film, comments on that in a way at the top of this documentary. But Wenders was a perfect choice as a man who could take this story and make the film feel like a Salgado photo from beginning to end. He captured the sense, sensibility, and framing of the great photographer’s works and filmed Salgado commenting on his photos while looking at them. The overall feel is often like an intimate, private show.

Tackling this subject also meant finding the story of Salgado’s life, the narrative by which Wenders captures your imagination and exposes the root of the art. He went with the title as it is now, but it could also have been “The Life, and Death, and Life of Sebastião Salgado” given the shape of his life and tale. Salgado has led a fascinating life both in deeds and trajectory.  His story is as inspiring as his art, not only for its unlikely path but also for its intensity and dedication to the purpose and result. To discuss it would be to rob you of the journey and revelations, so I won’t.

I discovered Wim Wenders as a narrative filmmaker. His power, however, as a documentarian is proving to be equally or more emotionally and artistically impactful for me. He embraces his subjects and holds them close, for years in some cases, before embarking on trying to tell their story in the right way. This movie is no exception and the result is something that has to be seen.

The Salt of the Earth

Arrival (redux x2)

I haven’t written up a rewatch in a long time. In part because there just hasn’t been a reason. However, last night I rewatched Arrival for the 3rd time, and I’m still finding little moments and lines in it that I missed. The script and direction continue to impress me, as does Amy Adams’s performance.

I’ve debated vociferously with folks since last year about the quality of this film. The more I watch it, the more I stand behind my feeling that it was ripped off at the Oscars. It is one of the tightest, most intelligent scripts I’ve seen in a very long time. It certainly was better than anything else up for the awards. The more often I see it the more I am seeing in it from a craft point of view. And, more importantly, it never seems to get boring. The pacing and the emotional run remain compelling on every watch. Joe Walker’s editing drives a  pace and energy that cannot be ignored.

Denis Villenuve may have created his masterpiece with this film, though I am hopeful it is just the beginning of his efforts that were already impressive. Similarly, I’m hoping the script by Eric Heisserer is a beginning rather than a peak (especially if you look at what he did before). 

If you haven’t seen this flick yet, for whatever reason, get it in your queue. Forget the genre, that isn’t the focus. I’ve watched it with folks who normally walk out of the room the second they see a spaceship or have a whiff of science fiction; even they were impressed with the movie. If you have read the original story and weren’t overly taken with it, ignore that and see how this adaptation takes that tale to a whole new level (a rarity in film, to be sure).

Yes, I’m badgering you. You know who you are. See this film… see it more than once and you’ll understand my comments even better.

13th

Seriously, put in your bite-plate before turning this documentary on.

As the natural follow-up to Selma, Ann DuVernay has produced an educational and shocking call to action. I could comment on it as a movie (it ain’t perfect), but that isn’t the point. You should see this… you must see this. Even if you grew up during most of the eras covered, even if you were involved, even if you feel you know a lot of what was going on, you’ll still discover gaps in your knowledge.

The hypocrisy and horror of the post-Jim Crow years is laid bare in this film, as much as it can be in a 2 hour period and still make its point. But if you wonder why so many people have been angered and scared of the current political rhetoric and direction, listen to what it echos from our own recent past. See what it is all rooted in. And then understand that when the film was made, the ship was starting to turn away from private prisons until the current administration reversed that intent (Daily Beast, Fox News).

If you can get to the end of this docu and not want to change something, regardless of your political beliefs, you don’t have an ounce of humanity in you.

Not sure what to do? Subscribe to DailyAction.org.

13th

Denial

I wish I could just talk about this just as a movie but it is impossible; much like the trial it documents, it cannot be easily divorced it from current politics. Especially this year. But I’ll try by dividing my commentary.

As a movie, it is one of the most effective discussions of concentration camps and WWII since The Woman in Gold. Denial is devastating through the first half, by necessity, but it isn’t maudlin. Director Mick Jackson (LA Story, The Bodyguard) managed to capture the quiet power and impact of the Holocaust. And, by the end, provide a sense of satisfaction and resolution.

There have been many films over the years about these events, most notably Schindler’s List which was powerful, but which was a depiction of events (generally) as they happened. Woman in Gold and Denial are about reality and effects years later which is ultimately more important now. The problem with the Holocaust is that it is the horror that keeps on giving. It is a lesson that, if not learned, will become reality again as humanity’s ability to kill and to control media is ever increasing.

Rachel Weisz (The Lobster) does a bang-up job as Deborah Lipstadt in demeanor, intelligence, and even her accent. On her team, Tom Wilkinson (Snowden), Anthony Scott (Victor Frankenstein), and Mark Gatiss (Sherlock) all provide more than your standard legal experts while not losing sight of how they have to function, which is often contradictory to what you’d expect or emotionally demand. The title of this film has a lot of levels to it as the story unfolds.

Opposite them, Timothy Spall (Mr. Turner) creates a true believer and weasel who is both shocking and uncomfortably familiar. You can see how his way of thinking and presentation is frustratingly seductive. Until this past year, I would have said he was a character more from the past, but the rise of populism and nationalism around the world has changed that.

Director Mick Jackson had the advantage of a script by lauded playwright David Hare (The Worricker Trilogy) with this production, but he also directed it with great acumen and avoided a heavy hammer; he lets the reality speak for itself. It is an emotional story, but also primarily a court procedural about history. There aren’t many writers outside of Aaron Sorkin who could make that material interesting and not just “important.”

Now, past this as a movie… If you need to understand why it is so terrifying to have Steve Bannon an inch from the President, this is the film you need to see. Especially true after this year’s statement from the White House on Holocaust Remembrance Day, just a couple days past:

It is these statements and reflections that make this a must-see film at this time. It is a solid and good film, no doubt, but the message is much more topical than I’m sure the filmmakers expected it to be when they began their journey. Or, perhaps, they had the scent on the wind more than the rest of us. See this for its quality as a movie, but also as a warning and suggestion of why we have to be vigilant and aware.

Denial

My “Best of” 2016

I don’t usually do this, but too many folks have asked. So, I’ve gone back through my last year of films and tv (and it was a LOT). Here’s what I came up with out of about 280 posts which covered more than 300 films and TV shows over the last calendar year.

Film:
Not all of these are brilliant, but they are all good movies and often unique enough to make them worth the time. Most were released in 2016, but a few may have bridged across from 2015 (or earlier)… and a few have released that I’ve yet to see, but there is only so much time!

The best (in no particular order, but should be seen):

Kubo and the Two Strings
Arrival
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Moonlight
The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Deadpool
Anomalisa
A Monster Calls
Marguerite

The rest (again, no order, but unique or well done and deserve a watch):

Sing Street
Remember
Hologram for the King
The Wave
Finding Vivian Maier
Eddie the Eagle
Fundamentals of Caring
Miss You Already
April and the Extraordinary World
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Sticky
Demolition
Therapy for a Vampire
Dressmaker
Swiss Army Man
The Nice Guys
Doctor Strange
Spectral
The BFG

TV:
There is a heck of a lot of good TV out there now, but these were the new ones that caught me off-guard.

This is Us
Class
Night Manager
Magicians
Stranger Things
The OA
Westworld

Arrival

star2star2star2star2star2

This is probably the best movie most people will miss this year. It is the antithesis of a popcorn film,  but it is completely compelling and full of visual inventiveness and eye-candy. Arrival is also one of the few must-see films I’ve experienced this year and likely one of the best science fiction pieces ever put to celluloid. Unfortunately, it is also getting buried at the top of the holiday season by a slew of bigger, flashier pictures.

The story of Arrival is intense and fascinating. Even though you may get ahead of it or have read Ted Chiang’s original short it is based on, it is acted well and keeps your interest. And in a world of crazy tension, it is a story that offers hope at time it is needed. In that way it reminded me of the release of V for Vendetta for the political timing and my reaction to it. The stories themselves have nothing similar between them, but they both leave you with a sense of possibility.

The cast, to a person, is solid and focused. Though we’ve seen all of these situations in other movies, everyone in Arrival is soft-spoken, honest to themselves, and they really listen to one another. This doesn’t mean it is a simple road or set of conversations, but it feels more real and displays characters in posts like the military and security services as intelligent, thinking human beings rather than paranoid war mongers.

Amy Adams (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) is wonderful, as usual. In an odd way it is a perfect pairing with the recent Doctor Strange; entertaining but inviting thought. Adams is subtle, intense, intelligent and very much in control of her choices despite efforts around her. It is a performance that probably also needs to be seen more than once given the layers she and the director put into it. This is her movie… everyone else just shows up to support her.

Forrest Whitaker (Southpaw), Jeremy Renner (The Town), and Michael Stuhlbarg (Pawn Sacrifice) are all facets Adams has to reflect on and work with. Each of the men delivers a performance that is a little unexpected. Whitaker is crisp and smart without his usual charm and odd sensibility and disarming humor. Renner is quiet and very much a side-kick without stealing focus. Stuhlbarg is solid and intense, but there is more a sense of thinking to his actions. Admittedly, his performance is the least different from his previous, but it still felt fresh.

The success of this film and cast really comes down to the director, Denis Villenueve (Sicario, Prisoners), and the adaptation by Heisserer (The Thing). Neither man allowed cliché to trump logic or audience expectation to drive decisions. The story has a particular shape and the result is original, entertaining, thought provoking and, yes, worthy of awards mentions later this year. In a sea of vacuous offerings, there is meat on the bones of Arrival. I don’t mean to imply this film is perfect, it isn’t, but it is amazing and effective and enjoyable.

There are plenty of utterly empty experiences out there to help you let go of your week or survive the holidays. Make sure that you slot this in while it is still on the big screen. It deserves the large format and it will, eventually, be considered a classic.

Arrival

Kubo and the Two Strings

star2star2star2star2star2

Magical; from beginning to end.

In a sea of very pretty, but pretty ridiculously predictable animation like Zootopia, Inside Out, and silliness like Minions, Kubo provides something new and wonderful. Even taking into account its anime and cultural roots, it forges its own path, in large part due to the stop-motion work that brings the story to life. It isn’t just the type of humor or the story, it is the depth of the characters and the complexity of the relationships. This is animation fit for older kids through adults. It isn’t reliant on pop-culture recognition (with one minor inside joke) or music. It is about people, family, and the journey of life in a surprisingly openly discussed way. Only Anomalisa comes to mind as being a worthy comparison of achievement, but that is for a very different audience.

Art Parkinson (San Andreas, Game of Thrones) lends voice to Kubo. He manages to be both serious and wide-eyed, self-composed but also young. It is a great performance without reverting to sappiness, even though you’ll cry more than once during the tale in joy and sadness. Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road) provides a great foil for Parkinson as he grows up all too quickly. Likewise Matthew McConaughey (Interstellar), though at times he is a bit more like The Tick than I’d have liked. Aligned against Kubo, Ralph Fiennes (Spectre) and Rooney Mara (Carol) are suitably honeyed evil… logical and focused, but with a good story to sell to their grandson/nephew. Two delightful surprises in the cast were George Takei (To Be Takei) and Brenda Vaccaro, both of whom have some great moments.

Laika has continued to evolve since its initial Coraline, which was differently wonderful in its own right, to the sweet, small-town tale of ParaNorman, which then shifted into the high fantasy wonderfulness of The Boxtrolls, and now to the adult depths of Kubo. Kubo, whose themes and subtlety, art direction and script beat them all. And Travis Knight, who was lead animator on the previous two Laika films took his lessons well in his first directing gig. If it doesn’t win him an Oscar, I may well scream. 

This is a film you not only should support, but if you don’t see it on a big screen you’re cheating yourself. It is a magical fantasy you can fall into, and when you surface a couple hours later you’ll find the world a more dull but loving place. As a gift to animation and as a great way to end a summer of sequels and generally weak movies, I can only hope this film finds its audience.

Kubo and the Two Strings